Catonsville senior regains control after anorexia threatened her life

Back in control

Catonsville senior wages frightening battle with anorexia nervosa

November 15, 2006|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun reporter

Friday night, Sarah Mandl sat down to a traditional pre-race meal. Spaghetti with vegetarian sauce. Salad. Bread. A high-carbohydrate meal fit for the distance runner she is.

For the Catonsville senior, finishing that dinner was as important as finishing the race. A recovering anorexic, Mandl battles daily the disease that, two years ago, left her in pain, hospitalized and struggling to surrender the control she exerted over food.

The next morning, Mandl ran as strong as she ever has, finishing 21st in the state Class 3A championship meet, the first on her team to complete the challenging three-mile Hereford course.

"She's more muscular now than she was before," Catonsville coach Sandra Gallagher-Mohler said. "Her chest is still very thin. You can see the breastbone and her arms are thin, but she doesn't look like she's running in slow motion.

"Before, she looked like her whole frame collapsed because she didn't have the energy. Now, she just looks so much stronger."

After dropping from 120 to 102 pounds and spending two weeks in a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital inpatient program two years ago, the 5-foot-9 Mandl is now up to 115 pounds. Still, she likely will never be completely free of her battle with anorexia nervosa.

"It's a lifelong process," said Mandl, 17. "I'm still dealing with some of the monsters in my head to this day, but I can look back on the days before the hospital and know that I don't want to be there."

She also has decided that she doesn't want to be a model. Advice she received three years ago while taking modeling classes triggered her descent into anorexia.

"There were so many aspects of my life that I felt out of control in, and I think modeling was sort of the gateway to unlocking all of that. It gave me an excuse to gain control through anorexia."

Harmful advice

Mandl always had been comfortable with her tall, slim body and her striking good looks. They drew attention from a few modeling agents at a couple of open calls. She got a few callbacks, including one from a New York agent who suggested the classes.

At first, Mandl received nothing but praise. Then, one of her advisers gave her some advice.

"He told me I could look fantastic if I lost like three inches off my hips and two inches off my waist, basically a total of five pounds."

She started running more often, doing Pilates and eating less.

The weight came off quickly. Soon, her diet and exercise regimen became an obsession. She ran at least seven miles every day, did two hours of Pilates and went horseback riding as often as possible.

She wasn't eating nearly enough to fuel all that activity, having cut back to a maximum of 500 calories a day.

"I just tried not to eat. I tried not to even think about food at all," said Mandl, who ate nothing but a few fruits and vegetables. "I would get mad at myself if I ate one little Wheat Thin."

Not wanting to eat kept her away from most social activities, because they revolved around food. She even avoided sleepovers because she didn't want to be faced with late-night snacks.

"That's one of the quagmires of having an eating disorder," said Dr. Harry Brandt, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, who spoke generally about the disease.

"There are some illnesses, particularly when you get into addictions - and eating disorders are different from addictions - but in addiction, you can abstain from what you're addicted to. People with eating disorders are confronted with stimuli for the disorder all the time. We need to eat."

Finding stability

Mandl said she has found a balance.

"From being an anorexic and having that obsession, I learned a lot about eating healthy. At this point, I know how to eat wisely when I'm out. I feel fine going out with people and being around food, like going to restaurants or movies and having popcorn."

By opting not to pursue modeling, she also has removed some of the cultural temptation to be too thin. She still runs, and though eating disorders affect many runners, Mandl said running has become therapeutic for her.

"Running, it's my high, it's my meditation," said Mandl, who enjoys running on trails near her home not far from Patapsco Valley State Park.

Mandl never thought of running as a means to lose weight. The hours of Pilates were to burn the calories, she said, while running and horseback riding were a way to escape the world.

A competitive equestrienne, she spent a lot of time riding in the state park and just being with the horses at the stables there.

Her career goal now is to become a large-animal veterinarian. A straight-A student, she's completing the admissions process and hopes to go to Alfred University in southwestern New York state, where she can study and ride. She's not sure whether she will continue to run competitively.

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